The Loneliness Epidemic

Probably everyone reading this has said or thought at least once "I feel lonely".  Many, many, many people have felt that way more times than can be counted. And it's not always easy to detect in others - oftentimes the people we least expect to feel lonely (because they have lots of FB friends, seem to be happy, and are very busy) are actually very lonely inside.

The amazing thing to note is that,  in spite of the fact that most, if not all, people experience loneliness, when we feel lonely we feel like we are the only one.  It's like everybody is feeling alone together! It really is pervasive - across gender lines, social roles, economic classes and spiritual beliefs.  There are lots and lots and lots of lonely people. The late Mother Teresa called it "the leprosy of the modern world". Christian counselors are calling it "an epidemic."

I hear from a lot of women that they are lonely. There seems to be a feeling of helplessness and inadequacy associated with it. I want to help. So I solicited input from you readers, did some research on my own, and compiled pages of notes on the subject. Your responses were wonderful!  So very helpful - thank you!!

So let's look at it together. What is it?  How does it affect us?  And what can we do about it?

I'll be on The Jules Show (WMSL 88.9 FM) on September 11 8-11 PM talking about this very thing.  I hope you'll give a listen.

 

Until then...

What is loneliness? 

It's a bit awkward to "define" loneliness because I think we all know in our gut what loneliness is...all too personally...but let's begin there and move forward -  Loneliness refers to the sadness of feeling unknown and unaccepted. These sad feelings can develop into and/or include anxiety, fears, and depression. Loneliness crosses all lines of gender, social roles, economic classes, and ages. Indeed, it is pervasive. 

Ironically,this sadness usually causes us to withdraw even more, which of course results in further isolation, preventing new potential relational bonds from forming and even weakening existing ones. More loneliness results. It is exacerbating. And it appears that epidemic is getting worse. Or maybe it's that we are more prone to admit it. Much research bears this out.

For example, a study by sociologist Jean Twenge, reveals that depression and loneliness (social disconnection) are reportedly higher today than even 10 years ago. Significantly so.

,https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/

Lest we think that loneliness is a "teen thing" or a "woman thing", check out this article in The Boston Globe to learn just how serious a threat it is to men https://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2017/03/09/the-biggest-threat-facing-middle-age-men-isn-smoking-obesity-loneliness/.

 And it's not just that loneliness produces psychological consequences; as this study explains, loneliness is a significant long term risk factor to physical health.   In fact, one study ranks it as high as smoking in terms of impact on our bodies because our bodies respond to these feelings with increased cortisol, higher blood pressure, and weakened immune systems.

Gulp.

So, as a result of loneliness, society as a whole sees repercussions relationally (further isolation often follows feelings of loneliness),  emotionally (depression and anxiety), and even physiologically (long term risk factor to health).

This is indeed a serious problem.

What causes loneliness? And, what can be done about it? My own research and you readers gave me lots of insight...

First, what are some causes of this epidemic? We can cite several contributing factors:

Busyness       This is an issue for nearly everyone. In fact, we often proudly wear "busy" as a badge of honor because we think that being busy equals significance! We are sadly misguided in this perception. We have also conditioned ourselves, in this "culture of immediacy" to treat relationships like instant grits. We apparently expect meaningful relationships to develop quickly and without much effort because we live in a "microwave world".  When bonds of affinity don't deliver as expected, we discard them and move on to the next "potential instant".  

 Transience    This society is easily the most mobile and most frequently mobile in all of history. Such mobility causes us to lose the repetitive contact necessary to build relationships.  Not only are we uprooting to new cities or neighborhoods, we are also experiencing social migration when we stay put. For example, people alter church attendance, change social clubs, and move in and out of activities rapidly. We have all experienced developing an enjoyable friendship with a Mom at our kids' soccer practice only to have soccer season end and the connection is lost. We have to begin again with new basketball moms! It takes a lot of time and energy and effort to maintain the relationship once circumstances move us on.

Technology - Now, don't tune me out.  I am not going to bash technology!  I love being able to get a message to someone while I am in a meeting instead of having to remember to make a call an hour later (foggy old brain). Using FindFriends to see if Chip made it to London instead of waiting on a phone call. FaceTime with my grands. And streaming movies on UVerse - all are absolutely wonderful uses of technology!  But we must face the truth that technology allows us to be socially lazy, perhaps even to avoid relational contact.  We text instead of call. We watch movies alone at home instead of going out. We google the answer instead of asking someone else.  While technology offers a zillion advantages, we also need to realize that it has the potential to isolate us. Perhaps the most significant contribution to loneliness it makes is how preoccupied we are with it. If you wonder what I mean, watch a group of moms at a playground with their kids and see how many are checking their phones instead of interacting with the lives around them. The lives of their own kids as well as potential new friends.

While we are on the subject of technology...

Social Media           I am not here to trash all social media.  I love the fact that I can reestablish connection with my high school and college friends!  I love that I can show pictures of Betsy swimming or playing the piano (OK, brag....sorry). And I certainly love the fact that I can share my blog with you this way!  But social media is not without some serious problems, not the least of which is its contribution to loneliness.   Social media is honestly addictive and being preoccupied with it reduces opportunities for meaningful interaction. It also gives the illusion of connection - we assume that, because we have 1000 FB friends, we should be fulfilled relationally.  Not so. Superficial connections fail to satisfy. As the number of relational bonds increase, the level of intimate bonding decreases. Meaningful relationships require significant investments of time and effort (for example - that is why we love our kids so much!) and FB does not afford that kind of opportunity.  Social media is also a comparison trap.  When we are idly scrolling through our newsfeed and we encounter pictures  of what looks like a really fun time that didn't include us, we can not only feel disappointed...we can feel lonely.  We ask ourselves why we weren't included.  We question what is wrong with us.  And we fall into comparing our happiness factor to our "FB Friends"- and it seems that they are winning.

Circumstances    Sometimes life throws us a circumstance that contributes to our loneliness.  I heard from moms of special needs kids, widows, and "single agains" that often feel left out, lonely, even excluded because their circumstances are not "mainstream".  This reality breaks my heart.  Like A LOT.

Unrealistic expectations - this one is hard.  How much do our own unrealistic expectations actually cause us to feel lonely when they are unmet?  It's hard to assess because we are designed by our Creator to need, to seek, and to desire relationships. He blesses, applauds, and urges relationships in His Word and by the example of Jesus. (Ecclesiastes 4:9 - Two are better than one and John 14:18 - I will not leave you as orphans just to mention a couple of places) In fact the very presence of Jesus on earth, leaving Heaven to become a man,  to dwell among us, and to teach us how to get along, testifies to God's desire for us to have fellowship with Him...and with each other.  The problem comes when our expectations of relationships exceed what God intends us to have.  Such as looking to another person to fill  us up to overflowing with love or to make our happiness their purpose. Or when we place unreasonable demands on another's time and attention. This only leads to disappointment, pain, and often causes the other person to pull away.  More loneliness.  We begin to interpret "life" through a narrow lens of "self" - what hurts me, what makes me happy, what do I need. Such self-focus makes the loneliness problem much worse. One reader suggested that the root of this is seeking worldly acceptance, trying to please ourselves,  and that will always let us down!  Amen!

Yes, there are many causes to this genuine epidemic. It almost feels hopeless to stand against the tidal wave, doesn't it? Our soul wants to be fully known, and fully loved.  We crave this because this is how God made us. The degree to which we do not feel known and loved is the degree to which we feel lonely. Factors such as busyness, mobility, social media, life's assignments can all work against us and lure us to attempt to combat the problem with ineffective weapons.

So, what are some things that will help? Is there anything we can do to make it better?

 

Next time we will look at some things we can do - some practical suggestions in the battle against our own personal loneliness.  

And remember to listen to The Jules Show on 9/11 8-11 PM.  88.9 FM  WMSL The Reach